EMBRYO RESEARCH: Progress Rekindles Debate Over Human Cloning
Even as the debate intensifies over federal funding for human embryo research, two American companies are "quietly" surging ahead in their efforts to "create the world's first batches of cloned human embryos," the Washington Post reports. Although the privately funded research is aimed at developing new treatments for diseases, some scientists say it nonetheless "could be inadvertently paving the way to the first births of cloned babies." Geron Corp. of Menlo Park, CA, and Advanced Cell Therapeutics of Worcester, MA, have launched what are thought to be the "first openly concerted efforts to create human embryos by cloning" for the purpose of developing medically useful cells and not for cloning young human embryos. The Post reports, however, that the "uncomfortable link" between the two is raising some difficult questions. "They can make the argument that what they're doing is just culturing stem cells," said George Annas, a bioethicist at Boston University, "but it won't fly with a lot of people." But for scientists, such as those at ACT, destroying the embryos before they reach 12 days allows them to skirt the ethical issues. "I think people don't realize that we're talking about cells that have not yet become anything yet," said ACT President Michael West, adding, "There's no hands and feet, and I think a lot of this debate is over mental images that words like 'embryo' portray." Noting that American regulators should "catch up" with their European counterparts, West said that regulators should accept the division between therapeutic cloning for valuable cells and reproductive cloning, in which the embryos are implanted and allowed to develop.
On the Horizon
As the ethical division over the "subtle distinction" persists, researchers interested in replacing tissues argue that stem cells harvested from patient clones are their best option, noting that those cells derived from leftover embryos at fertility clinics "would probably be rejected." Geron chief scientist Calvin Harley said that the company's long term goal would be to derive the stem cells from non-embryonic sources. But as it stands, he said, "we don't know how long it's going to take to be able to do this in a system without eggs." And as the technology improves, the Post reports, researchers inch closer to a situation in which a "sufficiently bold doctor proves willing to place a cloned human embryo into a woman's womb ... perhaps within the next two years" (Weiss, 6/14).